“…traffic is backed up on the interchange…local school children start spring break this week…In other news, China is building new hospitals in record time…most of the country is experiencing a mild winter…”
Like so many news reports playing in the background, initial news of COVID-19 barely registered with most people. Americans tended to relegate this to the subconscious as another problem that they would not be dealing with directly. Little did anyone know that the chaos, confusion, and disruption was making its way to the United States. In a move that has not happened since the Spanish Flu epidemic, 97% of school buildings were closed and schools pivoted to a virtual format almost overnight. The United States went eerily quiet.
While empty streets and shuttered businesses were novel at first, it quickly became obvious that an extended shutdown would have a devastating economic impact. To counter this, Congress quickly went to work and drafted what would become known as the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act, which was signed and went into effect on March 27, 2020.
Provisions of the CARES Act
The CARES Act includes an Education Stabilization Fund, which provides $13.5 billion in K-12 formula grants to states. This grant is distributed to states based on their share of ESEA Title I-A funds. State education agencies were to distribute at least 90% of funds to school districts and public charter schools based on their share of Title I-A funds. State agencies could then choose to use a portion or all of the remaining K-12 funds to respond to emergency needs as determined by the state agency.
The hallmark of the CARES plan was speed, and governmental departments quickly set about devising policies and regulations around the disbursement and accounting of these funds. The funds ranged from direct assistance for families to small business loans to direct assistance for local and tribal governments. In addition to the Education Stabilization Fund, 3.5 billion was put into the Governor’s Relief Fund. The Governor’s grants were divided among the states to support local education agencies that have been most significantly impacted by coronavirus. These funds would help these districts continue to provide educational services and operate administrative functions. These funds could also be used to support childcare and early childhood education.
School districts have been given wide latitude in how to spend the money from the federal standpoint. However, states could create their own rules. Because the key was emergency relief, Congress added several provisions in addition to the fact that the money was to be hastily distributed: Title 1 money can carry over this year into the next fiscal year, schools have until 2021 to use the money, and the “maintenance of support” provision has been waived. Congress recognized the likelihood of significant fiscal declines as the fallout from the economic crisis continues. While there was a lot of flexibility in the funding, school districts were given a list of allowable funding uses in twelve broad categories. These categories primarily focused on students and student learning tools, coronavirus response (cleaning supplies and training on infectious diseases, meals and support for students, and payroll support for teachers), as well as anything authorized by previous bills (ESEA, IDEA, etc.). Notably, the bill also included a provision for the continuation of administrative services, not something that is often included in federal dollars.
What Does This Mean for School Leadership?
The flexibility in spending deadlines means that district and school leaders should consider using funds not only for immediate needs but also for the longer term, that is, over the summer and into the coming school year. The CARES Act also authorizes waivers that allow local districts increased flexibility on the use of Title IV-A funds, including lifting the limit that no more than 15% of Title IV-A funds can be used to purchase technology infrastructure. Due to the virtual nature of most school functions during the COVID-19 crisis, technology became an essential tool in continuing to do the business of the district as well as to keep the community engaged and informed. Congress recognized this would be the case.
School leaders should recognize that funding criteria vary from state to state. The state education agencies play a significant role in how funds are allowed in each state. In some cases, the state is reducing its contribution to local education agencies (LEA) by the amount of CARES funds the district got, while in some states, CARES funds are required to be used for items directly related to safety and security. Federal funds will likely be audited, so careful records of how the money is spent as well as how it fits funding guidelines is strongly advised. However, there is a unique opportunity to explore CARES dollars to strengthen the infrastructure needed to create secure communications among staff and with the board. Specific activities laid out in the provisions of the CARES Act include:
- Coordination in response to the coronavirus
- Designing and implementing procedures and systems to improve preparedness and response efforts
- Continuing to employ existing staff
- Other activities to maintain operations and continue services
Some districts may find that they can use funds to purchase board technology. Using a secure board portal protects sensitive data regarding HIPAA and FRPA regulations. While working and meeting remotely, board software provides for business continuity. It also creates an opportunity to connect with your community and keep parents informed. Transparency has been a critical concern of taxpayers as they watched their elected officials move into virtual meetings. Housing these meetings in your board software creates transparency and confidence that the board is continuing the work of the district in good faith. The board’s primary concern is the long-term viability of the school. Acquiring software that ensures operations can continue and allows the district to still be served—all stated goals of the CARES Act.
Here are some questions to ask:
- Are your state regulations allowing software purchases with CARES Act funding?
- How do you plan to use CARES Act dollars?
- Do we have a secure centralized system to house data related to COVID-19 closures, plans and contingencies?
- Are we maintaining a centralized location that parents and other community stakeholders can go for up-to-date, accurate notices regarding district closures and other health-related information?
If you’d like to learn more about school board technology, contact us and we can help you explore your options.